Passion and Profit

March 30th, 1998 Features, Nine To Five

So you want to write? You’re not alone. The cunning, business minded writer can beat his/her own path to success, and it can be easy. All you need is the right advice.

There are a lot of people writing nowadays. We mostly imagine writers as lonely souls pouring their hearts out night after night on the typewriter or computer, only to be disappointed again.

If you fit that picture, you may well feel that your destiny lies in the hands of some cosmic editor in the sky. The truth is that you don’t have to wait for your big break — you can create it.

The first step is to stay positive. It’s easy to become downhearted, but never forget the reason you’re writing in the first place — because it’s a joy in itself.

The world doesn’t provide much support for unpublished writers. Like most of us, they have to juggle demanding families & relationships, full time jobs, and still find time to write and submit their work. And with nothing but rejections, there isn’t much incentive for a writer to feel good about him/herself.

You’ll also hear a lot of talk warning you about how competitive it is, what a lonely life a writer leads, how few people make it, how writers shouldn’t expect to make a living from writing in Australia.

But whenever you hear something negative about a writer’s chances of success, just remember that in 1990, Hodder & Stoughton (UK) paid Stephen King USD$32m for the rights to his next four books. And, as legend has it, Random House (US) paid Nicholas Evans a $10 million advance for The Horse Whisperer, and it was only half finished at the time.

There’s no reason why that can’t be you.

Anyway, if publishing is such a spot-on business, what about all those books you’ve read that you hated or didn’t even finish? You can write ten times better than that, remember?

Discipline

If you aren’t disciplined, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be a good or successful writer. It just means that it will take longer, and you might find publisher deadlines harder. Talented and motivated are different things.

However, most successful writers advocate good discipline. Bryce Courtenay, when asked the secret of writing, said there was no secret, it depended on your ‘bum glue’. John D McDonald said that ‘the only way to become a writer is to write (not a good approach to brain surgery)’.

Amid a demanding career, neverending household chores, parenthood or coupledom, be forgiving of yourself if you find it hard to get started. Budget your time a little. Even an hour a week is better than watching those ideas come and go.

And if the dreaded writer’s block strikes, don’t panic. Don’t force it. Have a rest, relax about it and it will pass. Like most things, worry makes it worse.

A World of Opportunity

Surprisingly, there are a lot of opportunities for writers. What often gets in the way is a lack of time, contacts, or bravado. Psychologically, we humans are very clever at tricking ourselves into putting things off for fear of failure.

Writing exists from the world’s best selling novel to the single line of copy in a newspaper classified ad. In fact, a lot of the world’s most successful novelists of today rose through the ranks of advertising as copywriters.

Even if you’re writing the next best seller, there are more ways to start than sitting by yourself amid the professions famed misery, poverty and obscurity.

In professional writing, the key to getting published is that you have to have been previously published. Sound ridiculous? The logic is that editors or publishers are reluctant to publish writers who don’t know the business of writing very well. But you can get to know it by getting out there. Sitting at home typing away on Old Faithful is only half the job. The successful writer has to be a writer, business person, sales executive, and marketing manager.

Despite this seemingly paradoxical barrier, writers do become successful, and you can too.

Publishers

The most obvious strategy is to submit your work to commercial publishers — the strategy most often met with disappointment. It’s important to remember that publishers are very restricted by budgets, commitments to successful writers (who are less of a business risk) and your competition — other writers.

The truth is that publishers ‘lists’ you hear so much about are full before they can even look at most manuscripts. One major Sydney publisher said that the number of unsolicited manuscripts that reach publication are 1-2 out of 5000 received every year.

But if you’ve learnt by now never to let statistics discourage you, then go to it. The consensus on the ideal submission is a laser printed, double spaced copy of a few chapters, a one page synopsis, and a few details about the manuscript. And the golden rule — include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Expect a reply within several months, and if you haven’t had one, contact your publisher again.

But above all, remember that money, time, and reader populations limit the fiction publishing market. ‘Publishable’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good’, and the chances are if you love your book so much, a lot of other people would too.

Advertising/Copywriting

It’s not often heard of for someone to start out big, and a good place to rise to the top is through the writing industries. So many of the advertising and promotions messages we are bombarded with every day are made up of only words, and someone had to write them.

Being in the industry helps, but if you aren’t and want writing exposure, practice your craft. Make up your own ads. Write them, and if you can, do the design and layout. Present them to an agency or public relations firm, and even if nobody uses your writing, a letter from an industry insider complimenting your initiative and talent is better than nothing.

Magazines

Australia has an abundance of magazines that publish short stories, prose, poetry, essays & reviews and welcome submissions from unpublished authors with open arms. Their main disadvantage is that most of them are published by University English or Literature departments. They’re usually as overloaded with manuscripts as commercial publishers and don’t have the facilities or staff to bring out more than a few issues a year.

But if you can stand a long wait for a response, they are a breeding ground for tomorrow’s successes. (Some short fiction magazines are run as businesses and often turn work over faster).

If you write about subjects that relate to a specific target audience, consumer magazines are a great place to try. They’re a pretty hard market to crack, as a magazine will traditionally have staff writers and a close circle of freelancers. But, as in most industries, it isn’t what you know but who you know.

Get to know people. When you write your first article for a magazine, submit it to the editor directly. If they send you back an edited proof and a cheque — congratulations!

If you receive a personal letter of rejection (rejection ‘slips’ are more the territory of publishing houses), phone or write, thank the editor for their letter and ask what sort of articles they are interested in. Editors are people too and you’ll find most will be fairly accommodating.

Then, send send send. Submit all the articles you can think of. Don’t despair if you still haven’t seen that elusive advance cheque — by now you and the editor will know each other’s name by heart.

Self Publishing

Some of history’s greatest authors, including D.H. Lawrence and Mark Twain, have published their own work. If your book contains an important message that you don’t want compromised by commercial editors looking for big bucks, or if the politics of publishing disillusion you, self publishing is ideal.

The enormous costs associated with publishing a book are mainly in volume and distribution (commercial publishers are providing for a national market). You can publish your own book with a glossy cover and attractive artwork as easily as a publisher can, and for less than you think.

Starting as small as you need to, you can make your book grow as profits from sales pay for each consecutive print run. Also, publishing houses will be a lot more interested in taking on work that is already selling, so by all means approach them along the way.

There are services which can provide you with any part of self-publishing if you don’t have the facilities yourself, from typing and desktop publishing to cover design and photography, and after talking to printers for the best quote on your print run, the most they usually need is a disk with the text or layout and any pictures.

If time limits you, Fast Books of Glebe is a self-publishing service who have produced more books in its six years than the major Australian publishers put together.

They can take the hassle out of organising printers, layout and the legalities (such as your ISBN) out of your hands. You can give them your material in almost any format, including pictures, and for costs you won’t believe, you can have a run of as few or as many copies of your book as you need to start off, complete with photographs and glazed cover, and in only a few days.

Not only that, Fast Books charge less for consecutive print runs, and will review your book for free on the Internet. The staff are delightful and eager to help, and the freedom, control and satisfaction almost make it better than a contract with a commercial publisher.


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